The Danger of Posting Sexualized Content on Social Media

How to avoid the risk of overexposure.

Posted Sep 02, 2018

Source: MinDof/Shutterstock

If a book is judged by its cover, a social media user is judged by his or her profile. So cultivate your image carefully. Also consider that, unless you maintain strict privacy settings, you are showcasing yourself to the world, which includes members of an intended and unintended audience.  

Not Just Nice Guys Are Looking

As a career sex crimes prosecutor, it is always disconcerting to see the sexualized content that young women post online. Such material is designed to attract same-aged peers, but often ends up attracting sexual predators — who are crafty enough to know how to appeal to their impressionable young victims.  

Even more concerning is the frequency with which such contact occurs. Parents, this often happens right under your nose. Would you let your teenage daughter invite a man into her bedroom for a private conversation? No need to even answer that. Yet consider that she may be having that conversation in her bedroom right now — on her device. Perhaps she is even exchanging photos with a sweet-talking stranger, or video chatting in real time. Welcome to the dangerous world of virtual communication.

Cyber Optics: How Appearances Become Reality

Young women are not the only ones posting sexualized content on social media. Adults do it too — and not just women.  

Sexualized online content is often published intentionally, with a specific audience in mind. Other times, however, it is released into cyberspace as a result of impulsive, reckless posting. Or a compromising photo is shared with a “friend,” only to have that person turn around and share it with a much larger audience. And of course once it is out there, you cannot get it back. 

Although you cannot avoid being tagged in photos other people take and decide to share, you can control your own online profile and content, as well as the trusted (small) group of friends with whom you share private information.

Depending on which social media platform you are using, a sexually charged persona is often indicated by what users see before they ever examine your online profile: your screen name.

Viewers Screen Through Screen Names

In a previous column, I discussed how you are judged through your selection of an Avatar — a digital or photographic image you select to represent yourself online.[i]  Another way users distinguish themselves online is through the choice of a screen name. 

In a study involving online daters, Monica T. Whitty and Tom Buchannan, in “What's in a Screen Name?” (2010), found that men prefer screen names indicating physical attractiveness, while women are attracted to screen names that are neutral or that signal intelligence.[ii] They note that consequently, more men than women are motivated to contact users with screen names signaling physical attractiveness, while women are more likely to contact users whose screen names are neutral or indicate intellectual characteristics.

Whitty and Buchannan note that according to their results, men looking for dates online are wise to select a screen name that touts their intellectual ability. Women, however, are put in a tough position. Although selecting a name that showcases positive physical characteristics will attract online daters, it may also attract cyber predators and sexual offenders.

Research reveals that in some cases, a sexy online image can actually make the poster appear less attractive.

Sexualized Content Draws Peer Disapproval

Women notice the way that other women portray themselves online. And apparently they are not impressed by intentionally provocative peers.

Elizabeth A. Daniels and Eileen L. Zurbriggen, in a study entitled “The Price of Sexy” (2016), examined the perception that young women have of peers who present themselves in a sexualized way on Facebook. They found that a peer who maintained a sexualized Facebook profile was viewed as less attractive, both physically and socially, as well as less competent.[iii]

First Impressions Are Better Made in Person

Whether evaluated by peers or prospective paramours, is it better to be viewed as attractive or taken seriously? Although many women might answer “both” or argue that it depends on who is looking, presenting a package of attractive qualities that will not be misjudged or misinterpreted might be easier accomplished in person.  



[ii]Monica T. Whitty and Tom Buchannan, “What's in a Screen Name? Attractiveness of Different Types of Screen Names Used by Online Daters,” International Journal of Internet Science Vol. 5, No. 1 (2010): 5 -19.

[iii]Elizabeth A. Daniels and Eileen L. Zurbriggen, ”The Price of Sexy: Viewers' Perceptions of a Sexualized Versus Nonsexualized Facebook Profile Photograph,” Psychology of Popular Media Culture Vol. 5, No. 1 (2016): 2-14.